20 years ago today I bought my first mobile phone. 1998 was a different world.
The Ex insisted I get one, so like a good boy I popped into The Link, a subset of Dixons, and picked myself a Motorola StarTAC. Specifically I bought the mr501, which was the budget option, and paid £49.99 for the privilege. Ah, that classic clamshell design, and that fiddly extendable aerial, and that satisfying click when you opened it up. It was like suddenly having a Star Trek communicator in my pocket.
Looking back at it now, with its little screen for displaying nothing more than a few lines of text, it all seems ridiculously basic. The battery is huge, relatively speaking. The SIM is credit card sized, and slots into an exposed gap below the mouthpiece. A splash of water in the wrong place and it'd never work again. But it still has a pleasing weight to it, and fits comfortably in the hand, and looks a lot more likely to survive contact with a hard surface than a modern £500 smartphone.
I joined the Orange network, and received a snazzy welcome pack for my troubles. The company were known for their cutting edge branding, at the time, and the two-tone paperwork collection didn't disappoint. Even the prepaid envelope to customer services was bright orange on the inside. The pack welcomed me to "one of the fastest growing national digital wirefree communications networks in the UK", told me the future's bright, the future's Orange, and listed all the wonderful things I could suddenly now do.
I read the instructions very carefully. How to turn the thing on, how to tell if the battery was running down, how to add numbers to the phonebook so you could see who was calling, how to pretend you were busy and send the call to voicemail - it all seems so obvious now, but it was cutting edge back then. I particularly liked the fold-out network coverage map which reassured me of "high quality outdoor coverage available now" in the area where my parents lived in Norfolk - something which has never materialised even 20 years later.
I didn't use my new phone on the first day because it was charging up. I used it on the second day while the Ex was driving us to Coulsdon to buy a very expensive television. Somewhere before the Dartford Crossing I rang my parents to tell them I now had a mobile phone, and was ringing them from the M25, and I couldn't remember what my number was but I'd tell them later. They seemed somewhat surprised. I then rang the TV shop to check where to park, on all-inclusive minutes, as the phone proved its worth for the first time.
I first used the Answering service a few days later at work, when I checked my phone mid-morning and discovered a mysterious envelope on the display. It took a while to realise what the symbol meant, and what to do, but eventually I rang back and discovered the Ex had called. Kerching, that was my first 28p on the bill. A short call followed, which was a surreptitious treat in an environment I'd previously assumed to be personal-communication-free. I made a note to set my phone to silent, and have left it there ever since.
I sent my first text message 10 minutes later. I had been trying to send it sooner, but I was on a steep learning curve trying to work out how to turn a numerical keyboard into words. I can't remember what the message said after I'd managed to type it in, but I know it was brief, and I suspect I'd now be too embarrassed to repeat it. Text messaging had the potential to be the most brilliant means of communication ever, so looking back through my first set of bills I'm amazed how infrequently we used it. During the remainder of 1998 I only sent a total of 20 texts - a number I can easily exceed in a day today.
In December, owning a mobile phone enabled me to plead for a job from the platform at Romford station, which changed my life. A few months later, owning a mobile phone enabled me to ring for a breakdown truck from a ditch in deepest Suffolk, rather than wait there in the dark until somebody noticed. Throughout 1999, owning a mobile phone allowed a long-distance relationship to thrive... then wobble... and ultimately collapse, as the Ex's itemised billing receipts unambiguously revealed a lengthy backlog of promiscuity. The mobile phone giveth, and the mobile phone taketh away.
In 2002 I switched my mobile allegiance to the legendary Sony Ericsson T68, a grey beauty which no longer required flipping anything open. It feels so small today, almost like it'd get lost at the bottom of a pocket, but small was beautiful when text was king. In 2004 I upgraded to a K700i, which for the first time had a camera attached, although sending one of its indistinct images as a message proved prohibitively expensive. I only ever picked it up if it buzzed, and the idea of using it to keep in touch with what was going on in the wider world would have seemed fantastical.
In 2007 I switched to a K550i, which could now shoot video, not that anyone was interested. I also finally switched to pay-as-you go because I never rang anybody so my contract was piling up hours and minutes I would never use. I kept that phone for five years, during which time technology progressed so rapidly that I had to succumb to a smartphone for fear of missing out. Mobile phones had become more about screens than buttons, a means of communicating many-to-many rather than one-to-one, and an essential key to keeping in touch.
Today's mobiles are part camera, part newspaper, part hi-fi, part plaything, part digital megaphone. They allows us to share everything we're up to, and to receive instant feedback from our peers. They nudge us relentlessly to remind us they exist, and leave us bereft should they ever go offline. Smartphones are inexorably becoming the most important gadget in our lives, the window though which we see the world, the magic rectangle which grabs our attention throughout our waking hours - increasingly the master rather than the servant.
I still have exactly the same mobile number as I was allocated 20 years ago today, in case you ever want to get in touch. But the gizmo in my pocket has evolved far beyond the clamshell I bought in 1998, because what a mobile phone is for has irrevocably changed.